As our recent poll of our readers confirmed, procrastination is one of the biggest enemies of writers. If you can’t stop putting off writing, here are nine writers’ advice for how to write a book with renewed motivation:
Consider the source
Most of us don’t procrastinate on our writing because we are lazy or secretly want to be doing whatever it is we are filling our time with other than writing. We procrastinate because we are perfectionists, and the thought of getting started with something imperfect is scary. We procrastinate because a part of us feels guilty for indulging in writing instead of cleaning the house, or we procrastinate because we are overwhelmed.
In Anne Lamott’s classic book on how to write, Bird by Bird, she addresses a number of these blocks. The title itself is taken from advice that her father gave her brother when he couldn’t get started on a book report about birds: “Just take it bird by bird.” Whether you are daunted by the size of the task before you like Lamott’s brother or you are procrastinating for some other reason, understanding what is at the root of preventing you from getting started is the key to stopping it.
Remove your options
Neil Gaiman offers three ways to prevent procrastination. The first two don’t apply to many of us in the early stages of writing: He needs to write because he has to support his family and because he has an audience waiting for his work. However, his third suggestion can apply to anyone, and that is to remove as many distractions as possible:
‘Do whatever you need to to place yourself in a world in which YOU ARE ALLOWED TO WRITE OR NOT DO ANYTHING AT ALL, JUST STARE OUT OF THE WINDOW. But you can’t do anything that isn’t writing or not doing anything. Staring out of the window gets boring after a while, and it is more interesting to write.’
Find out if the procrastination is productive
You need to be careful with this one, but it is a possibility worth considering. Award-winning writer Hilary Mantel says that when she began researching historical fiction, she thought the research would be enough. However, what she discovered instead was a kind of productive procrastination that she described as the imagination filling in the gaps. It is true that some writers need down time during which their unconscious mind does crucial work.
Just to be on the safe side, and particularly for less experienced writers, you can always show up for your writing appointment even if your writing brain is not quite ready to produce ideas yet:
Don’t be afraid to be boring and awful
Even the great Maya Angelou struggled with writing sometimes, and her example shows that sometimes you simply have to turn up and put words down on the page. According to Angelou, she sometimes did this for weeks at a time, writing trite sentences that were “boring and awful”, but eventually, she reported, the muse always returned to her. Perhaps, as in Hilary Mantel’s experience, her unconscious was busily working away.
Showing up to write on schedule for each session, even when you don’t feel like it, and putting even substandard words down on the page lets your unconscious know that it isn’t getting off the hook easily. It can help ensure that you don’t let yourself avoid writing with excuses.
Make writing your refuge
Sometimes, you may struggle to get started writing fiction because of external distractions. If you are going through a particularly stressful period in your life, you might find it difficult to focus on the mechanics of storytelling. However, writing can also act as place you visit as a refuge. Writing fiction is not therapy, but it can still be therapeutic.
Stephen King wrote the second half of his famous memoir On Writing during a gruelling recovery after being hit by a van in an accident that nearly killed him. He had initially thought that he might never write again, and it was the first work he completed and published after the accident. If you are also struggling with devastating life events that are keeping you from your work, you might find that the work itself can be healing.
Check your direction
Martin Amis, the noted British novelist, is the son of another noted British novelist, Kingsley Amis, and he reports his father having to talk his way through the opening of a book. Martin Amis describes his father as taking himself gently by the hand and asking himself what he was worried about. Often, his hesitation was an indication that he was doing something wrong.
Ray Bradbury also described struggling with writing if he took a wrong turn. If you are in the middle of a first draft, you probably shouldn’t go back and rewrite, but you might need to look back and find out where you may have gone wrong and pick up writing as though you didn’t take that wrong turn. Remember, you can always fix gaps you’ve consciously left during the next draft.
Find your voice and your plot
Formerly a literary agent and now a writer, Nathan Bransford has long maintained a blog on the business and craft of writing. According to Bransford, voice and plot are the only two things that you need to write the first draft of your novel, and you don’t even need these to start. Thinking of your first draft as a process of discovery can help remove some of the pressure you may be placing on yourself to write something linear and polished from the start. Bransford points out that once you have found a plot and voice, you can then go back and revise. The important thing is that you get started.
When all else fails, you can always try something drastic:
Enlist the help of others
The famous 19th century French novelist Victor Hugo is said to have worked naked, or at least he is said to have asked his valet to take away his clothes to prevent him from leaving his study. You might not have a valet and may in fact wish to keep your clothes on, but you might also be able to persuade a friend or family member to help keep you on-task. Some writers ask their partners to turn off the wireless and hide the router from them since the internet tends to be the biggest distraction if you are sidetracked easily into watching entertaining videos and trawling social media.
Another classic of writing advice is Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want to Write. Ueland’s book is about the joy of writing, and according to Ueland, while writing, you should not be “like Lord Byron” but “happy, absorbed”. With all the advice that you try to follow about paying attention to character and structure and language and plot, writing may have come to seem like just another chore rather than the original source of pleasure it once was for you. You might be putting off your writing because you have lost that sense of joy, and you may need to find it again.
Think about what originally motivated you to start writing and what you loved about it in the first place. Try writing without any particular object or immediate demand of the end result.
As writers, we can sometimes feel isolated and start to believe that we are alone in struggling with getting started. Realise that even the most famous and successful writers struggle with some of the same issues. Those solutions might involve examining the reasons behind your struggles to get started, or they might be as straightforward as making an outline and giving yourself permission to write until you find your voice. You may need to enlist the help of others, force yourself to sit alone in a room without distractions or change your mindset to see writing as a source of joy and healing rather than stress or another item on your to-do list. Whatever your reasons for avoiding writing, at least one of the above solutions is likely to work for you.
What are some things that make you put off writing, and how do you make yourself stick with it?
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